John Scalzi on the famously curmudgeonly and irascible Harlan Ellison

Critic at Large

Nearly everyone who has been in science fiction over the last 60 years has a Harlan Ellison story, and I have two. Here’s the first: Harlan would occasionally call me up late at night just to yell at me.

What did I do to deserve a yelling at from the famously curmudgeonly and irascible Harlan Ellison? Well, from 2010 to 2013, I was the president of SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, an organization to which Harlan belonged and which made him one of its Grand Masters in 2006. Harlan believed that as a Grand Master I was obliged to take his call whenever he felt like calling, which was usually late in the evening, as I was Eastern time and he was on Pacific time. So some time between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m., the phone would ring, and “It’s Harlan” would rumble across the wires, and then for the next 30 or so minutes, Harlan Ellison would expound on whatever it was he had a wart on his fanny about, which was sometimes about SFWA-related business, and sometimes just life in general.

I will note that no other SFWA Grand Masters, of which Joe Haldeman, Robert Silverberg and Connie Willis are still very thankfully among the living, ever called me at home, much less at an hour when I would already be in bed, and possibly asleep. I don’t believe that it would have in fact occurred to any of them to call me at home. If they had business with me, an email would suffice (and has). Harlan, on the other hand, didn’t do email — or at least, didn’t do it with me. He had arrogated to himself the privilege to call, and to assume the president would take his call.


And the thing was, he wasn’t wrong about that. As SFWA president, I wouldn’t have begrudged any Grand Master a phone call — that seemed a reasonable perk, although I would have preferred office hours — but as me, John Scalzi, writer of science fiction, well. It was a kick to get the Harlan Ellison live show, even through the telephone.

“The Harlan Ellison live show,” it should be noted, meant many different things to many different people. “He was the only person I’ve ever met who was both adorable and terrifying,” my friend and longtime science fiction fan Rena Watson Hawkins said to me today. Depending on who you were, Harlan could be closer to one than the other, or another thing entirely. Mutual friends of ours lived with the contradictions of his personality, with its intense loyalties, volcanic outbursts and a life that from the outside at least often appeared to be lived id first. This was a man who famously told Frank Sinatra that he didn’t care what Sinatra thought of his boots, and who equally famously was fired from Disney on his first day at work, for joking about making a porn film with the studio’s famous animated characters.

He wrote “The City on the Edge of Forever,” perhaps the finest episode of “Star Trek,” complained at length about the rewriting of it by Gene Roddenberry and others, and eventually sued Paramount for monies related to the script (the suit was eventually settled; both versions of the script won awards). He also threatened to sue James Cameron, claiming “The Terminator” was based off a script he wrote for “The Outer Limits”; that was also settled and Harlan got a credit on later releases of the film, reportedly to the irritation of Cameron.

Harlan contained multitudes, in point of fact, some of those multitudes sublime, and some of them rather the opposite.

He edited “Dangerous Visions” and “Again, Dangerous Visions,” two of the most significant anthologies in the history of science fiction, and then delayed so long on a proposed third edition of the series that its non-publication became the stuff of legend. He held a protest at IguanaCon II, the 36th Worldcon, to shame Arizona for not passing the Equal Rights Amendment, and at LACon IV in 2006 shocked the audience at the Hugo Awards by groping his co-presenter Connie Willis’ breast, a thing for which many in science fiction never forgave him. And although science fiction is what he’s best known for, with eight Hugos and four Nebula awards, he also won multiple awards in horror and mystery, and multiple awards from the Writers Guild of America. He wrote film and television, and also, criticism of film and television.

Harlan contained multitudes, in point of fact, some of those multitudes sublime, and some of them rather the opposite. To say he was complicated is not to mitigate his failings or to minimize his successes. It’s more to say that he lived his life enormously, in all directions. In noting his passing on Twitter, Harlan’s dear friend Christine Valada quoted the man: “For a brief time I was here, and for a brief time, I mattered.” Taken in full, he was right on all counts.


To say he was complicated is not to mitigate his failings or to minimize his successes. It’s more to say that he lived his life enormously, in all directions.

My second Harlan Ellison story was from 2011, the last time he was a finalist for the Nebula Award, given out by SFWA. Traditionally, SFWA contacts the Nebula finalists by phone to see if they’ll accept being on the ballot, and knowing of Harlan’s sometimes irascible phone manners, I was the one to call.

Harlan was not irascible. He wept into the phone. He had been ill, he said, and he wondered if what he was writing now still resonated and still mattered to people. To have his professional peers nominate him for one of the field’s most significant awards, he said, meant everything to him.

In that moment he wasn’t a giant of the field, a figure equally loved and loathed, a man about whom everyone had a story, or an opinion. He was, simply, a writer, happy to be in the company of, and remembered by, other writers.

I’ve never regretted making that call, or taking the call when he rang.